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Turek on Film

Michael Turek on his career as a travel photographer

Michael Turek is an award-winning professional photographer based in New York. For over eight years he shot digitally, travelling the world and capturing it through his digital lens. But now he shoots almost entirely with Kodak film and he says it has only made his pictures better. Michael uses FIREPOT on all his remote trips — he has a bag full of our food right now in the Russian Far East. Olivia Lee talks to him about his work and the places his photography has taken him.

Photographer Michael Turek, shot on Kodak Portra 400 film.

How did you discover film?
My professional career as a photographer began in New York City after studying photography at college. After I left school, I jumped into digital and for eight years I shot my commercial assignments and fine art projects digitally. But then, nearly a decade later, I decided to shoot some expired film on a trip to Yorkshire — mostly out of boredom — and I found the experience to be a revelation.

Why do you prefer to shoot on film?
A lot of people ask me that, expecting me to say something romantic about the way film looks. But for me, shooting film is more about the process (though for the record, I do prefer the way film looks). Film makes me feel intentional. I find the limitations of having just 10 or 20 shots per roll allows me to focus on the moment. I’m not constantly bending my neck looking at the LCD screen after each shot. My eyes remain up, looking at the scene, allowing me to be reactive and open to the experience — ultimately that’s my job as a storyteller.

I can also be more creative when I work with film. I’ve been getting some attention lately for my double exposure shots. I shoot through an entire roll of film with half of the lens covered, then rewind and reload the roll, shooting through it again with the other half of the lens covered - no photoshop involved. It’s not a new technique, but I have managed to get some really interesting images. The magic and fun is that the pairings are random - sometimes days apart. It's really great way to show different moments from the same story in one photograph.

An in-camera double exposure shot, taken in Peru, shot on Kodak Portra 400 film.

What challenges do you face working with film in the wild?
Film is bulky to travel with, it can be damaged by X-rays at security checks, and rolls are easy to lose. I’ve accidentally exposed a roll of film by opening the back of the camera when I thought the roll was already rewound. Film rolls run out of pictures far quicker than a memory card and they are not cheap to buy or process either. It takes a few days for my lab to return the processed film, and sometimes clients need the images right away.

Where's the wildest place you've ever been on a job?
That really depends on the definition of ‘wild’. I’ve lived and worked in New York City for the last 13 years and I still find it pretty wild. Even when I travel to places like Rwanda or Russia, people always tell me that New York City is crazier. But if you’re talking totally remote, last year I flew by helicopter 17,000ft up to a Himalayan lake in Bhutan. That place was so isolated that even the hardened helicopter pilot caught his breath. It was the kind of lake that no one would’ve had any reason to go to — so deep and so high and so far from anything living. The ice was popping and cracking in the sunlight and the sound it made was totally alien to me. Now that place was wild. Who knows how many years the lake has been freezing and melting like that, with no one there to listen.

The life of a professional photographer sounds glamorous — you get to travel the world taking pictures of beautiful places. Is that what it's really like?
Yes, it is. But then it’s also exhausting. Sometimes I’m dirty for days, or I get into really awkward or uncomfortable situations, or visit dangerous places. I don’t understand the languages, I eat a lot of terrible food and I spend half my time at airports, waiting in line, sitting in cramped seats. But then, none of that really bothers me. I still find it mind-blowing that we can even fly such distances and visit such amazing places. For me, travel is an adrenaline fix. And I love the tiny things, like figuring out how to use an overcomplicated kettle in a different language, or getting sick over a glass of fermented mare’s milk. It's a job that requires a bit of indifference to discomfort, but the wonderful, random experiences that come from travel — and especially using the camera as a key to unlock these places — definitely makes the job worth it.

The Russian Far East, shot on Kodak Portra 400 film.

Where's the one spot you'd go back to shoot again, if you could?
I’d go back to most places again if I could. But there’s one place I went to in the last 24 hours, on the coast of Sakhalin in Russia, that springs to mind. It was a beach right next to this rusty old seaside town called Prigorodnoye — definitely not what you’d describe as conventionally beautiful. In fact, the whole scene looked almost apocalyptic, with a light that was all kinds of golds and greys. The beach in front of me was this confluence of oppositions — fishermen from Azarbayjan having a bonfire, high school kids hanging out, families playing games, locals throwing nets into the sea. And all of this was backed by an enormous oil refinery, with huge chimneys spouting fire, and a pier leading to a massive oil tanker floating at sea. One guy on the sand managed to catch his rubber waders on fire and I watched him douse the flames, not in the ocean, but in an enormous pile of wet fish. I could have sat on that beach for days.

You've already shot so much of the world — you've worked in over 50 countries, including Bhutan, Pakistan and Russia. Is there anywhere you still really want to go?
Of course, there’s so much I still want to do. The more I travel, the more I want to travel. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate is that spending more time in a place really helps my work. When I first came to Siberia a year and a half ago, it was new and exciting and I took photos of everything. I was a tourist and there was this exotic ‘otherness’ about the place. But this is my fifth time in the country now and it’s finally starting to feel less alien. I can appreciate it more as a local, and I can take pictures with more thought and intention behind them. So I guess that while I want to see the rest of the world, I also really want to immerse myself more in the places I do go. But then, if I really could go anywhere? Space, no question.

An in-camera double exposure shot, taken in India. Shot on Kodak Portra 400 film.

To see more of Michael Turek's work, visit michaelturek.com.